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- 1/25/2017: Pretty URLs: Round two
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Teams are groups of like-minded people reviewing things of common interest. Here are a few examples:
In absolute numbers, no country holds more people in prison than the United States. The US also has the second highest incarceration rate – right after the Seychelles, an island archipelago with a population of 92,000 people. The racial disparity of the criminal justice system is well-documented. Combined with a constitution which permits forcing prisoners to work, and laws and practices which deprive felons of rights and opportunities even after release, America’s practice of mass incarceration has been linked to its history of slavery and racial segregation.
The issue is so severe that criminal justice reform has proponents across the political spectrum, but little progress has been made, even under the reform-friendly presidency of Barack Obama (the first sitting president to visit a federal prison).
One man who has made the cause his own is Neil Barsky, formerly the manager of a hedge fund named Alson Capital Partners, which managed $3.5B of capital at its peak. In 2014, Barsky launched The Marshall Project, named after Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice and a towering figure in US civil rights history. The name might suggest an advocacy organization, but The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture.
Barsky himself pursued a career in journalism before he went into finance, and he brought on board Bill Keller as editor-in-chief, further boosting the project’s journalistic credentials.
Keller was the executive editor of the New York Times from 2003 to 2011. His long tenure there was not without its controversies. For example, he was a “reluctant hawk” arguing in favor of the Iraq war, something he later half-apologized for, only to argue in 2013 that the US should “get over Iraq”, arm more Syrian insurgents, and force Syria’s ruler Assad out of power.
Be that as it may, Keller/Barsky quickly turned The Marshall Project into a sizable journalistic venture and a professionally run nonprofit organization exclusively focused on the cause of criminal justice.
Stories are published through its own website, and sometimes in partnership with other media organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Together with ProPublica, the project won a Pulitzer Prize for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”. It’s a harrowing tale of how police pressured a woman to recant a report of a brutal rape, instead of tracking down her attacker, who would go on to commit five other attacks.
Funding, Transparency, Executive Compensation
The project is funded partially by Barsky himself, but it has also received funding from foundations and major donors, including some of the usual funders such as Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller. Its 2015 Annual Report provides a high-level breakdown of funding sources: 55% foundations, 43% individual donors. According to its latest financial statements, revenue for 2015 was about $4.8M.
The Annual Report also gives a sense of how the organization views its own impact, recapping its important stories of the year, and sometimes drawing a connection between investigations and real-world impact, for example:
After we published Attica’s Ghosts on brutality at New York’s infamous upstate prison, the Department of Justice launched an investigation, cameras were installed inside the stairwells, and the three guards finally pleaded guilty.
This impact assessment is not as systematic yet as the ones performed by some other organizations, but it is only the organization’s first Annual Report.
The latest available tax return reports that Keller received total compensation of $225K in 2014, though his annual compensation may be higher given that he still worked at the NYT in early March of that year. Regardless, it is well below some of excessive nonprofit compensation we’ve written about, e.g., the $584K Paul Steiger received in his first year at ProPublica.
The Marshall Project defines its mission as “creating and sustaining a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system”. I appreciated the clarity of the letter from the founder and the letter from the editor in setting out the organization’s agenda. Barsky writes in his letter, about the criminal justice system:
What struck me was not only how expensive, ineffective, and racially biased it is, and how difficult it is to find anyone, liberal or conservative, who defends the status quo. But also how our condition has become taken for granted.
He argues that the truth speaks for itself:
We do not need to be strident or ideological or selective in our use of facts. When the truth is as disturbing as it was in the segregated South, or in Vietnam, or today’s prisons and courts, truthful reporting can have a powerful impact. We will explore what is working as well as what is broken, and where the potential exists for meaningful reform.
Being nonpartisan is not the same as being neutral. We approach the issue with the view — shared by a growing number of conservatives and liberals — that our system needs serious rethinking.
For his part, Keller promises in his letter that “you will find here the voices of progressives and conservatives, centrists and provocateurs”.
Most of the content is long-form text, with a few interactives, and a limited amount of data journalism. As noted above, many stories are partnerships with other news organizations. This means they are also often published in traditional publications like The New York Times, or broadcast in other formats such as audio versions for NPR.
There is a small YouTube channel used to host videos that accompany some stories, and it does not have a large audience in its own right (548 subscribers as of this writing).
I find the focus on long-form journalism refreshing compared with other media that attempt to do a little bit of everything (podcasts, videos, etc.). That said, compared with sites like Vox, The Marshall Project still has some ways to go in making complex topics accessible, especially when it comes to data journalism.
Content Example: “Opening statement” Newsletter
On most pages, The Marshall Project encourages readers to subscribe to its newsletter, “Opening Statement”. It’s a roundup of criminal justice news that includes original reporting, but isn’t limited to it. I must say, it is very well curated. For example, the first item in today’s newsletter is this:
“My intuition tells me that if I go in, I’m not coming out.” Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigrant mother of three American children, is taking refuge in a church in Colorado rather than report as ordered for another meeting with federal immigration officials. She was ordered deported under the Obama administration after a conviction for using false ID, but was granted repeated postponements. She’s given her kids instructions about what to do if and when the feds come. THE NEW YORK TIMES Related: Feds defend arrest of first “dreamer;” say he’s a gang member. DHS More: Now ICE is detaining victims of domestic abuse, evidently on tips from their alleged abusers. EL PASO TIMES
Highlighting these particular news items, including in the email subject (“A mother claims sanctuary”), demonstrates excellent editorial judgment. These incidents help explain why many communities have chosen to protect undocumented individuals by declaring themselves “sanctuary cities”. At the same time, it is laudable to see a direct link to the DHS statement, even if it may undermine a strictly activist narrative.
While there is some room for improvement (headlines like “N/S/E/W” or “ETC.” are not especially helpful), the newsletter is definitely one that I’ll stay subscribed to. I especially appreciate that it does not give Marshall Project content special placement, but just attempts to highlight the most important stories of the day, wherever the may be found.
You can view past issues of the newsletter before subscribing.
Content Example: “The Deadly Consequences of Solitary With a Cellmate”
This story, which came out in March 2016, highlights the issue of prisons putting more than one inmate in cells designed for solitary confinement. According to the story, “at least 18 states double-up a portion of their restrictive housing, and over 80 percent of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary have a cellmate.” A primary reason for this practice is prison overcrowding.
The story shows what anyone might expect: that sometimes, inmates attack or even kill each other under such circumstances. A chilling quote from the story:
After two months of begging for a single cell, Fox wrote a note to guards: “Move my cellie or I’m going to erase him.” They didn’t, so he did.
The Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but in a historically very punitive society, this is a high bar to meet in court. Reporting like The Marshall Project’s is essential to expose prison practices that amount to extrajudicial death sentences for inmates.
The story is well-written, uses neutral language, refers to many primary source documents, and makes good use of photographs, drawings, and an interactive 3D illustration. It was done in partnership with NPR.
Content Example: “Everything You Think You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong”
On the occasion of his book release, the project is giving exposure to John Pfaff’s work, which questions the common narrative that the “war on drugs” is the key driver of mass incarceration.
While I have no reason to question the integrity of Pfaff’s work, as presented here, it neglects the well-established link between drug criminalization and organized crime: drug money fuels other criminal activity and sustains criminal gangs and organizations. The story also does not touch on the effect drug-related felony convictions may have on people’s lives. In this way, the “war on drugs” can be empirically argued to have ripple effects far beyond its directly measurable effect on the prison population.
In fairness, the authors reached out to Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) for a quote regarding Pfaff’s work, and she speaks to some of the drug war’s other ripple effects. Moreover, presenting provocative theses like Pfaff’s is certainly consistent with The Marshall Project’s mission, and it usefully expands our understanding of the big picture. Still, I would have preferred a less sensationalist headline and a more balanced approach.
Design, Tech and Licensing
The Marshall Project website is easy to navigate and mobile-friendly. It employs a tagging system it calls The Record to organize stories about subjects like immigration or prison life. One very neat feature of this taxonomy is that it’s used both for The Marshall Project’s own stories, and for stories from around the web.
There is no comment section or discussion forum, and content is under conventional copyright, though there is no copyright notice.
The site’s jargon, design and iconography are a bit idiosyncratic (i.e. you have to poke around a bit to figure out how the site is organized, rather than being able to apply a mental model from other sites). This reflects the use of a custom software developed for the project and recently published on GitHub under the MIT License with an explicit warning that “we cannot support any use of this code, in part or in whole.”
Beyond its content management system, The Marshall Project has a very active GitHub presence. Unlike the CMS, the project’s news monitoring tool, Klaxon, is designed for use by other journalists and has been forked by other organizations, e.g., by the Associated Press.
This is a big deal – if news organizations, thanks to leadership by nonprofits, can open up their technology layer, it will improve journalism for everyone.
The Marshall Project tackles a systemic issue that affects millions of lives in the United States – criminal justice – and it does so without deviating from the simple premise that shedding the light of quality journalism on the issue can lead to positive change.
Having only been around for a short time, the project has already demonstrated the value of this proposition. The collaboration with other media, and the use of open source tools, expand its impact beyond the website and newsletters. The team’s curatorial work in monitoring news from around the web is excellent.
The project’s nonpartisan outlook may predispose it slightly towards ideas and voices that appeal to centrists. Sex workers pushing for legalization, for example, may be frustrated to see only a single article on the subject: an interview with an advocate for strict application of the Nordic model (prosecuting johns but not prostitutes). This in spite of the fact that major organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch advocate for full decriminalization of “sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation or abuse” (Amnesty).
Systemic issues like sex work and drugs benefit from systematic explanations, e.g., backgrounders and data briefs. ProPublica ended up building an entire section for data journalism; Vox is well-known for its slightly clickbaity but useful “Gun violence in America, explained in 17 maps and charts” type articles. There may be opportunities for collaboration both with journalistic organizations and with think tanks and NGOs.
Still, these criticisms are not serious enough to subtract points from the final rating: 5 out of 5 stars. The Marshall Project is already very good at what it does, and I highly recommend following their work. You can follow them on Twitter, on Facebook, and via the Twitter list of all media rated 4 stars or higher.
“Filter bubbles” of news consumption reflect divergent values. If you believe that abortion is murder, the fact that major US media are not continually reporting on the issue, and on the efforts by fellow activists, must seem like a grave injustice. Personally, I don’t believe that abortion is murder, so I can’t agree with that concern.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan have given one of the best explanations I’ve ever found, looking at fetal brain activity as the chief characteristic that defines being human. Because, like them, I don’t recognize the claim to personhood in the early trimesters of pregnancy as even based in any kind of scientific reality, the grave consequences of denying women the right to make this decision on their own are the actual injustice deserving attention in my view:
- the fundamental violation of body autonomy that any state intervention represents;
- the association of the “pro-life” movement with terrorism against abortion clinics and doctors and intimidation/harassment of women
- the intended and unintended side effects of anti-abortion efforts on family planning and women’s health services well beyond abortion (e.g., contraceptive services, STD diagnosis and prevention, etc.);
- the increases in unwanted pregnancies (which in turn may lead to adverse outcomes for children and parents) and unsafe “back alley abortions”.
From that point of view, major media in the United States are not paying sufficient attention to the unholy matrimony between the Republican Party and “pro-life” groups (including associations with religious extremists who have endorsed anti-abortion violence). To the extent that media do report about the issue, it is usually about the work of politicians, not the real-world impact of their policy decisions. This creates a distorted picture.
If you share this perspective, then Rewire may be a welcome addition to your nonprofit news mix. Recently rebranded, it has been around since 2006, originally under the name “RH Reality Check” (archived contents). It reports chiefly on reproductive rights issues. With an ethos of intersectionality, Rewire does give some attention to issues such as LGBT rights, race and immigration, and economic justice.
Transparency and Compensation
RH Reality Check was part of the UN Foundation from 2006 to 2012. This may not be surprising once you realize that the UN Foundation (which is independent of the UN and supports its work) was CNN founder Ted Turner’s billion-dollar gift to the world. Turner is a long-time reproductive rights and population control advocate.
Rewire has since left the UN Foundation mothership and is now an independent nonprofit (tax returns). Like other nonprofit media, it is largely dependent on grants from foundations, which nowadays includes funders like the Packard Foundation, the Compton Foundation and the Ford Foundation [CSV file].
The Rewire website does not mention these sources of funding or provide a breakdown, and Rewire did not respond to repeated inquiries about funding and other matters. The tax returns do show a large increase in revenue from $1.18M (2013) to $5.95M (2014). At $181K, the compensation of President/Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson is not unusual for a nonprofit of this size.
There is no Annual Report or other statement of impact, and as such, it’s difficult to assess to what extent stories broken by Rewire have impacted real-world policy decisions or activist efforts.
While stating its pro-choice positioning clearly, Rewire also identifies with the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Commentary and news content are distinguished, though news stories don’t shy away from value judgments. This, for example, is from a news story about Donald Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General:
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans in Sessions’ confirmation hearings largely dismissed his abysmal record on a broad range of rights—including, but not limited to, voting, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights, all of which are intertwined. [Emphasis mine]
Indeed, as of this writing, the Rewire frontpage features the #NoBanNoWall hashtag below its logo, which represents opposition to Donald Trump’s border wall plans, and to the entry ban targeting Muslims from several countries.
Politically, Rewire is most closely identified with feminism. In 2016, it published a column expressing concern about harassment of Bernie Sanders’ critics by online trolls (adopting the “Bernie Bro” term and drawing parallels to Gamergate), but far from being a pro-Clinton piece, the article is a pretty nuanced feminist take on the subject. Later in the campaign cycle, editor Jodi Jacobson expressed frustration with the possibility of a Vice President Tim Kaine given his poor track record on abortion.
Content Example: “False Witnesses”
Rewire’s primary focus is in-depth reporting on abortion, contraception, and women’s health. A section called False Witnesses highlights “pro-life” activists who are sometimes cited as experts, but who (according to Rewire) are promoting false information.
To take a closer look at an example chosen at random, Rewire calls Chilean researcher Elard S. Koch a false witness for his efforts to discredit the well-established link between anti-abortion laws and unsafe abortions which put women’s health at risk.
After being rejected without review by The Lancet, Koch published his study in PLoS ONE, a journal known for publishing, then retracting a paper referring to the human hand’s “proper design by the Creator”. (PLoS ONE uses an expedited review process which does not examine a paper’s importance.)
After taking a look at the Koch paper, the Rewire analysis, the Guttmacher Institute assessment, and the Koch reply, I agree that the Koch paper draws unwarranted conclusions from the actual findings.
To make a long story short, the combination of rising incomes / improving education, legal access to family planning (including contraceptives) and illegal access to abortion-inducing drugs have helped bring abortion-related maternal deaths in Chile down, in an environment that has never been very tolerant of abortion. The remaining extent of maternal deaths resulting from unsafe abortion procedures is unknown, because they are by definition part of a clandestine crime under Chilean law.
The Koch paper doesn’t refute the well-established fact that countries which experience large numbers of maternal deaths caused by unsafe abortions could reduce those deaths by legalizing abortions. Its findings only suggest that the long process of reducing unwanted pregnancies through family planning/contraceptives, rising incomes, improving education, etc. can also contribute to doing so.
As a “pro-life” researcher, Koch overstates what can be learned from the data, and those who use it for their purposes likely overstate it further. Nonetheless, I did not find the Rewire piece especially helpful in piecing this together. For example, Rewire doesn’t mention legal access to contraception and doesn’t talk about illegal access to abortifacient drugs like misoprostol, both of which are important factors in maternal mortality. Its essay reads like a he-said/she-said that doesn’t quite warrant the classification of Koch as a “false witness”.
Indeed, unlike a fact-check scale like Politifact or Snopes, a classification system that personalizes ratings by labeling individuals “false witnesses” is strongly predisposed towards a one-sided portrayal. This is perhaps understandable given that both sides in the abortion debate are “fighting for human lives” from their respective vantage points, but it’s an example of a slightly sensationalist bent that may not serve the most truthful journalism possible.
Content Example: “Fake Abortion Clinic” Investigation
Rewire also does in-depth investigative journalism in a dedicated section. A recent investigation, “A Window Into Texas’ Publicly Funded Fake Abortion Clinics”, is a good example. It is based on public records requests regarding Texas’ “Alternatives to Abortion” program and makes the case (with input from health experts) that this program leads to women being preyed upon by organizations that promise health services, but that are primarily on a mission to minimize abortions rather than providing care.
Given its pro-choice premise and use of loaded language like “fake clinic” and “anti-choice propaganda”, Rewire’s investigation is unlikely to reach the large number of Americans who support access to contraceptive services but not abortion, and who might be shocked by the taxpayer-funded proliferation of “women’s centers” that don’t provide much more than an ultrasound and a prayer. Leaving this aside, the story is an example of quality investigative work that sheds light on the consequences of Republican health policies.
Design and Licensing
When it relaunched as Rewire, the site shed a dated look in favor of a clean, pleasant and mobile-friendly design. Color and layout are used effectively to meaningfully divide content by topics and content types (e.g., news vs. commentary). As with many good designs, there are multiple ways to go to the same place, aiding discoverability of the site’s content and structure.
The site prominently advertises an email newsletter called Rewire daily. Each email contains headlines and summaries of stories, linking back to the main Rewire site. The email database is likely also used for fundraising appeals, though I have not received one yet.
Content is under conventional copyright, i.e. it may not be copied or re-used without permission.
Rewire is without a doubt a useful resource for anyone concerned about reproductive rights in the United States, an issue which is especially relevant given the onslaught of legislative attacks in many US states and the hostile environment for women’s rights under the Trump administration. As a news site, it is a bit of an oddball since it is neither completely specialized nor fully inclusive – it’s “here’s a heavy helping of reproductive rights news with a small side of Dakota Access Pipeline updates”.
I was disappointed by the lack of organizational transparency (no reporting on impact, no financial breakdown, only a “we will get back to you” response to an email inquiry without any further follow-up) and with a slight tendency towards sensationalizing in service of its agenda.
Because of these concerns, I subtract 1.5 points off its rating per the review criteria. This results in a rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 4 given that Rewire fills a niche of specialized journalism that is not currently occupied by other nonprofit news sources. As such, Rewire is now also part of the Twitter list of quality nonprofit media.
In his 2013 work The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal lays out the evidence that morality is not a “thin veneer” covering our immoral animal nature, but that the brainier social animals (especially primates) have been equipped through evolutionary selection to act morally and with empathy for others.
Whether it’s the idea that we should get the same reward for the same effort, that kids deserve extra leeway for their inevitable infractions, or that certain behaviors must be met with punishment or ostracization, evolutionary selection has favored a “moralistic” view of the world. Humanity’s codes and beliefs are simply more elaborate expressions of this innate moral capacity and of what De Waal calls our “empathic potential”.
De Waal has studied bonobos extensively (they are closely related to chimpanzees and were long thought to be the same species) and recaps how bonobos de-escalate conflict and tension through sex. But he also explains that chimpanzees, in spite of their greater propensity for violence and aggression, also follow clear moral codes in their behaviors.
The book is strongest in these descriptions of primate behavior, which are well-sourced and explained through clear examples. The rest of the book tries to make the case that any attempt to displace religion must address the emotional gap it fills in people’s lives.
De Waal anchors much of the essayistic book in his perspective on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, repeatedly referencing parts of the triptych (which overflows with symbolism and bizarre images) to underscore his arguments. Some readers may enjoy these passages; I found them ultimately overbearing.
In his moral argument, De Waal is very critical of the “neo-atheist” movement he identifies with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, accusing them of pointless and needlessly confrontational advocacy. There is little nuance in this criticism. For example, he briefly references Hitchens going after Mother Teresa, as if it was self-evident that such an accomplished figure should be above criticism, in spite of, e.g., her relentless crusade against abortion and contraception.
This reflects De Waal’s own upbringing, which he briefly recounts: having grown up under liberal Dutch Catholicism, he writes that he departed religion gradually and still appreciates its cultural legacy in music and art. The idea that this might give him a somewhat rose-colored view does not, however, seem to occur to him. Instead he is quick to conversely diagnose outspoken atheists as the victims of trauma. Is it not possible that some of those critics have simply taken a more rigorous look at religion’s effects than De Waal has, irrespective of its effect in their own lives?
While De Waal acknowledges the danger of religiously motivated anti-science efforts like creationism, his view is that science and religion can and do inform each other, while our morality is at its core defined by our biology and environment, not acquired through reason. He identifies dogma in all its forms, not religion per se, as the biggest impediment to human progress.
I find it hard to disagree with that, but a core argument by atheist advocates is that the failure to intellectually challenge moderate theism or deism alongside its more extreme manifestations gives religion too much of a pass in public discourse, makes it more difficult for a deep understanding of the world to take root, and creates fertile ground for extremism to continually re-emerge from the same scripture quoted by moderate believers. This is an argument De Waal does not acknowledge.
I also missed a more explicit discussion of the interplay between beliefs and the development of empathic potential. Doctrines like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” are far from mere abstract beliefs; they are direct recommendations for specific parenting actions with specific psychological effects. But De Waal makes no effort at an empirical assessment of how religion could perpetuate beliefs that have a limiting effect on our capacity for empathy.
Most importantly, in spite of the word “humanism” in the book’s title, there is in fact very little discussion of humanism as a philosophy and practice. It’s fair to argue, as De Waal does, that atheism is not an especially interesting philosophy by itself, but many atheists embrace secular humanism as a system of values today. They view atheism simply as a necessary foundation of their moral outlook, not a sufficient one.
Humanistic charity and relief work, community events like Sunday Assemblies, emphasis on pluralism and rejection of dogma, awe and wonder as sources of inspiration, and so on – these are all pillars of humanism today. De Waal’s book could have given voice and visibility to this growing global effort to create an expansive, inclusive humanism; instead it barely acknowledges its existence.
In short, De Waal offers a decent summary of primatological findings that are in fact entirely consistent with atheistic and humanistic philosophies, while adding little insight beyond that. On balance, there may be better uses of your time. For a closer look at the empathetic capabilities of animals beyond the primates, I recommend a look at Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (reviews).
Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence is a 2016 Japanese movie, another in the Godzilla franchise. It’s a fun, fast-paced film that will surely satisfy monster movie fans and casual cinema-goers. To anyone else, a word of advice: it’s very silly.
It’s got it all: bad dialog, particularly off-putting editing, a soundtrack that doesn’t always match the moment, a googly-eyed, flailing gojira, two-dimensional characters, badly spoken English and a strange love for bureaucracy. It’s the kind of film that could be fun to watch with friends, as you make fun of its multiple deficiencies, but not really as a good monster film.
Maybe this reviewer’s Western eyes fail to capture some essence that made Japanese audiences love it: it was the highest grossing live-action Japanese film of 2016, helmed by none other than brilliant Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno. It seemed like it had everything going for it, but in the end it was a major disappointment.
Atribuição: Dornicke (CC BY-SA 4.0)
O Museu Nacional de Belas Artes é uma ótima atração para o fim-de-semana no Rio de Janeiro pros que gostam arte. O espaço é grande, mas não o suficiente para cansar demais as pernas do visitante, o que é ideal; além disso, contém obras clássicas de pintores e escultores brasileiros consagrados, com um acervo mais voltado para o século XIX, ainda que também existam exposições menores com arte moderna brasileira.
Dito isto, o museu parecia um tanto subutilizado à época da minha visita, com certas áreas fechadas aos visitantes. A falta de ar condicionado na maior parte dos salões também não ajudou a atenuar o forte verão carioca, que acaba cansando o público ao longo da visita.
Sempre é possível melhorar, mas num quadro de crise como o que vivemos, o museu acaba se ressaltando pela qualidade do acervo e da curadoria, assim como pelo bom estado de conservação do edifício e das instalações, todos acima da média em comparação com outros museus cariocas.